Kelly Claes

Kelly Claes, Sarah Sponcil
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Kelly Claes, Sarah Sponcil want to be the youngest U.S. Olympic beach volleyball team ever

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U.S. beach volleyball teammates Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil were all packed and minutes from driving separately to Los Angeles International Airport in mid-March when they received the notification.

An FIVB World Tour event in Sydney, Australia, their first of the Olympic year, was canceled due to the emerging coronavirus pandemic.

“We called each other,” Sponcil said. “We kind of were in that moment of now what? Like everyone else.”

Claes, 24, and Sponcil, 23, then spent nearly the entire spring apart. Sponcil drove to her native Arizona. Claes hunkered in Southern California, where stay-at-home measures were instituted. Beaches closed. Beach volleyball tournaments, in the U.S. and abroad, were wiped off the calendar. The Olympics were postponed to 2021.

It was heartbreaking, especially given Claes and Sponcil accepted the risk of flying abroad back in March. While other teams withdrew from the Sydney event, they were entered right up until the cancellation.

“We were prepared to go out and play and get quarantined out there,” Claes said. “We had friends in Australia. We’ll quarantine with them.”

Every tournament could be vital for Claes and Sponcil over the next year, starting with the AVP Champions Cup. The three-legged substitute for a season is being held in the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center parking lot with imported sand. Matches are the next three Saturdays and Sundays with coverage on NBC Sports.

Next year, Claes and Sponcil can become the youngest U.S. Olympic beach volleyball team in history. So every extra opportunity to play together is viewed as beneficial.

They’re also ranked third more than halfway through U.S. Olympic qualifying. The top two teams go to Tokyo. That’s why they were so intent on flying to Sydney. The No. 2 team of Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat, plus others, withdrew before the event was canceled.

“We want to pursue the Olympics,” Sponcil said. “If our health is on the line, we’re going to risk it.”

The AVP is not part of Olympic qualifying. But Claes and Sponcil will continue to season a partnership that is not yet two years old. All of the other teams going for U.S. Olympic spots are in the AVP Champions Cup field, except for Walsh Jennings and Sweat, given the three-time gold medalist is no longer under AVP contract.

In U.S. Olympic qualifying, world silver medalists April Ross and Alix Klineman hold a substantial 1,800-point lead over Walsh Jennings and Sweat. Claes and Sponcil are another 320 points behind. When international play resumes, the standings can change in a week. A team can earn as many as 1,200 points for a top-level international title.

Walsh Jennings, who is 41, is trying to become the oldest Olympic beach volleyball player ever. She has said this will be her last Olympic run. If Claes and Sponcil accomplish their goal of qualifying for Tokyo, they will also likely end the Olympic career of a legend.

“I haven’t thought about it all that much,” Claes said. “There’s so many different outside voices and pressures. We’ve been just trying to stay in our own little bubble and focus on what we need to focus on.”

Plenty has kept them busy since partnering in September 2018.

“We’ve gone to hell and back,” Claes said last year on the beach volleyball podcast Sandcast.

Claes won NCAA beach volleyball titles with USC in 2016 and 2017. She and fellow Trojan Sara Hughes began playing internationally with a pedigree to become the next great U.S. team. Their bond was so strong that Hughes turned down Walsh Jennings’ proposal to partner up in 2017.

But in 2018, Hughes decided to pair with Summer Ross for a Tokyo Olympic run (which ended after Ross suffered a 2019 back injury). Claes finished the 2018 season with veteran Brittany Hochevar, then had to decide about a Tokyo Olympic run.

Claes “interviewed” multiple potential partners. She reached out to Sponcil, a promising player who was still competing collegiately for UCLA.

Sponcil was a revelation during her summer break from the Bruins. She made her AVP main-draw debut with Rio Olympian Lauren Fendrick and reached a final, dropping two close sets to April Ross and Klineman. Sponcil and Fendrick trained together once or twice before the tournament, which took place two weeks after Sponcil and the Bruins won the NCAA beach title.

“Before that, I didn’t really have a future planned,” said Sponcil, a setter for UCLA’s indoor team after transferring from Loyola Marymount, where she was that school’s Female Athlete of the Year. “I kind of wanted to go the indoor, USA national team route, but after we did so well in that tournament, it kind of flipped a switch. I kind of wanted to pursue beach.”

The late summer/early fall of 2018 was the crucial time. Olympic qualifying was about to start. Partner switches were happening. April Ross and Klineman paired a year earlier. Hughes and Summer Ross (no relation) earlier that year.

When Claes and Sponcil molded their team over lunch at a Southern California burrito joint, Walsh Jennings was still on the lookout. Claes was one of the players who worked out with Walsh Jennings. All of the players flew to China in early autumn for tournaments.

“I think it was still a little open in my mind,” to consider a partnership with the triple gold medalist, Claes said. “I mean, Kerri Walsh Jennings, amazing athlete. Five Olympics under her belt. I felt like I could learn a lot from her.”

Claes and Sponcil, in their first tournament together, finished third in a mid-level event in Qinzhou. Claes had agreed the next week to play with Walsh Jennings, who then right before the tournament announced Sweat as her new partner for the upcoming Olympic run.

Claes and Walsh Jennings, both blockers at 6 feet and change, still played that one event together. They won their first two matches. In the third, they went a set up on April Ross and Klineman, who already established themselves as the top U.S. team. Ross and Klineman rallied to win in three. Claes hasn’t played with anyone other than Sponcil since.

“[Walsh Jennings] and Sarah were, like, top of my list,” said Claes, who also tried out with April Ross in 2017 before Ross teamed with Klineman. “Each one would have been such a unique journey to go down. I’m so thankful it worked out the way it has because I get to now experience life with Sarah. I get to experience this journey fresh with Sarah, and we get to do it together versus if I had decided to play with Kerri, so much experience on her end. It would be me, I kind of feel like, tailing along and figuring out things as I go in that regard versus getting to live it with my partner.”

Sponcil said she felt confident that Claes would not leave her for the most decorated Olympic beach volleyball player in history.

“There’s always those thoughts, but I don’t think it really rattled me too much,” Sponcil said. “[Claes] was looking for a partner that was younger that she could kind of grow with.”

Claes and Sponcil forged ahead. Sponcil came up with a team name — Slaes. They write songs and perform them in videos.

“We’re both so goofy and dorky,” said Claes, a fan of Comic-Con, Dungeons & Dragons and the cartoon “Rick and Morty.” “We play off of each other so well.”

In competition, they opened the 2019 season in the hell that Claes mentioned. The U.S. was so deep in teams that Claes and Sponcil had to play an all-American qualifier just to get into the normal qualifying tournament for an FIVB World Tour main-draw event in Itapema, Brazil. It’s called a country quota.

This country quota came against Walsh Jennings and Sweat. That made it key, given the Olympic qualifying race. The veteran Olympians doused Claes and Sponcil 21-12, 21-14 in 28 minutes. Claes and Sponcil traveled all the way to Brazil for 28 minutes of competition. The early loss meant their travel expenses would not be reimbursed. Plus, they had to play in hurricane-like conditions.

“I was holding the ball out on my hand, and it was blowing out of my hand,” Claes said.

The early exit turned out to be a blessing. Claes and Sponcil used the extra time before their next tournament in China to train for a week straight. Before that, they were together on sand once or twice a week given Sponcil was finishing her last season with UCLA.

“That really changed the momentum for us for the rest of our season,” Claes said.

From there, Claes and Sponcil made the semifinals of all four of their AVP starts. They made the final of an FIVB World Tour event in Espinho, Portugal.

There is still room for growth. They have yet to beat April Ross and Klineman or Walsh Jennings and Sweat, according to BVBInfo, but should get plenty of opportunities before Olympic qualifying closes next year.

“I really feel like we’re going to qualify and go the distance here,” said Claes, who as a teenager fractured her spine and underwent a cardiac ablation to treat supraventricular tachycardia. “I honestly think we have the most to gain from this kind of pause time because we are the youngest team and we have the least experience together. I think we have all the advantages of this time to gain some more experience before this last push before the Olympics.”

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MORE: Champions Cup marks beach volleyball’s socially distanced return

Beach volleyball players fly to Australia, learn event is postponed

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U.S. beach volleyball players Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil learned about five hours before their scheduled flight to Australia that this week’s FIVB World Tour event in Gold Coast, carrying significant Olympic qualifying points, was postponed due to coronavirus concerns. They didn’t board.

Olympians Phil Dalhausser was already in Australia.

“The Coronavirus has officially affected the beach volleyball world,” was posted on the 2008 Olympic gold medalist Dalhausser’s Instagram. “Unfortunately the Australian tourney was suppose to start in a few days and most teams are already here.”

Efforts to reach Dalhausser, who is paired with Nick Lucena, have been unsuccessful, but he posted on Instagram over the weekend that he was touring Sydney.

Claes and Sponcil and Dalhausser and Lucena share this: They are the third-ranked U.S. pairs in women’s and men’s Olympic qualifying. The top two U.S. pairs per gender come a June 15 cutoff qualify for the Tokyo Games, unless the qualification procedures are changed given the coronavirus’ impact. Points are crucial for those teams just off the bubble.

The Gold Coast event was mid-level, given a three-star rating on a scale of one to five. The top two U.S. pairs per gender either didn’t enter the event or withdrew before scheduled flights.

Kerri Walsh Jennings, the three-time Olympic champion who is ranked second in Olympic qualifying with Brooke Sweat, posted that they and other U.S. teams decided collectively on Friday to withdraw from the Australia event.

“People had departing flights within hours of our decision,” was posted on Walsh Jennings’ Instagram. “It was extremely hard for all of us because we were each weighing our Olympic dreams & professional livelihood against a global pandemic and National State of Emergency in our home country. No athlete should ever be in that situation.”

Claes and Sponcil and Dalhausser and Lucena, the latter having just played a four-star event in Doha, were still on the entry list on Saturday afternoon. The FIVB said preventative measures had been planned to protect those at the event, but it was ultimately postponed.

“The FIVB and the organizers recognize that there are international travel limitations and other restrictions in different parts of the world that impact the ability of some of the participants to take part in the event,” according to a press release. “The health of athletes, officials and fans is the FIVB’s top priority, and the mutual decision to postpone the event was made in the best interests of all parties.”

Previously, four-star events scheduled this spring in China (two of them) and Mexico had been postponed or canceled. That made the points offered in Australia more valuable for Olympic qualifying, which takes each pair’s top 12 finishes from Sept. 1, 2018 to June 14, 2020 with greater weight given to higher-starred events.

That timeline and process could change.

“The FIVB, working in close collaboration with the IOC, is evaluating how to adapt the Olympic qualification for beach volleyball in order to preserve the technical balance and protect the athletes in light of the recent event postponements,” according to an FIVB statement Monday.

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MORE: Olympic sports events affected by the coronavirus

Race for Olympic beach volleyball spots heats up World Tour Finals

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April Ross and Alix Klineman can all but wrap up an Olympic beach volleyball berth this weekend. For Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat, a strong finish at the FIVB World Tour Finals in Rome may prove crucial for Tokyo 2020 hopes.

Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA airs live coverage Saturday (6 a.m. ET quarterfinals and 12 p.m. semifinals) and same-day finals coverage Sunday at 12 p.m. NBCSN airs coverage Sunday at 11 p.m.

The international season ends with a bucket of Olympic qualifying points available. There will be more tournaments in the fall, winter and spring before the Olympic qualifying cutoff date of June 14, but the majority of next season’s schedule has not been announced.

“It’s so uncertain right now,” NBC Sports analyst Kevin Wong said. “You need to lock in points as soon as possible. We don’t know how many events there are going to be next year.”

And there might not be any events with as many Olympic qualifying points at stake as the World Tour Finals, which carries five-star-level status. Only the biennial world championships, which took place earlier this season, had greater ramifications.

A maximum of two U.S. pairs per gender can qualify for the Tokyo Games.

Ross, a two-time Olympic medalist, and Klineman, her new partner as of two years ago, are ranked No. 1 in the world. With the World Tour Finals, they will reach the requirement of 12 events played to be eligible for the Olympics.

They already have 8,160 Olympic qualifying points, which is 1,280 better than the next-best U.S. team of Walsh Jennings and Sweat.

Walsh Jennings, a triple Olympic champion who split with Ross after their Rio Olympic bronze medals, paired with Sweat about a year ago. They have been up and down but grinded through qualifying matches to reach main draws all season.

They have a 580-point lead for the second and final U.S. Olympic spot over the No. 3 American team of Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil.

Both pairs have met the 12-tournament requirement, which means each is playing to replace their lowest-scoring result so far. Teams can play as many tournaments as they like in the Olympic qualifying window, but only their 12 best points results count.

Walsh Jennings and Sweat are looking to drop a 480-point score. Claes and Sponcil want to drop a 240-point score, which means they can finish lower than Walsh Jennings and Sweat this weekend and still gain on them in the qualifying standings.

The World Tour Finals winners get 1,200 points, a significant increase over a four-star event (800 points) and a three-star event (600 points).

On the men’s side, three pairs are also in the running for two Olympic spots. The teams include 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena and brothers playing with different partners — Taylor Crabb with Jake Gibb and Trevor Crabb with Tri Bourne.

MORE: Olympic beach volleyball champ eyes comeback

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